The Pope’s Phone Call to the Woman in the Irregular Marriage

Are you following the bewildering and ever-changing details of the latest cold call of Pope Francis? It seems that the phone call really did happen, and that he really did advise the woman in the irregular marriage that she might receive Communion. The official Vatican denial pretty much confirms the story, while cautioning that it was a personal, pastoral action and not a change in official teaching.

Here’s the best summary I’ve seen of the whole saga: “UPDATED: Did Pope Francis really tell a divorced woman to take Communion?”

Money quote from Francis: “There are priests who are more papist than the pope.”

So… you can’t wash the feet women on Holy Thursday, but the Pope does so. You can’t receive Communion if you’re in an irregular marriage, but the Pope advised a woman she could do so.

I think Pope Francis has a savvy sense of how to reform the Catholic Church.



  1. Or, as Sister John Francis used to say: “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission:. 😉

  2. Encouraging – even as this story unfolds! Fr. Anthony, I’m in agreement with the final three paragraphs of your post – my sentiments exactly!
    This discussion vividly reminds me of something a rather conservative Jesuit professor of systematic theology, at a Jesuit university, on the eve of Vatican 2, taught us regarding “epikeia.” His instructional style included regular use of aphorisms to emphasize key concepts. One that I never forgot over these many years relates to Pope Francis’ alleged remark about “priests more papist than the pope.” —
    “If there’s a bird I’d like to see
    plucked from his pompous perch,
    It’s he who’s less, yet strives to be
    more Catholic than the Church.”

  3. Perhaps Francis is forgetting that he is the Pope! Then again, he refers to his new job as the Bishop of Rome. He is reminding all of us, clergy and lay alike, that Christianity is about mercy not (man made) laws. No one, i mean, no one is worthy of receiving Communion YET it is one of the two “sacraments” mandated by Christ Himself “Do this in memory of me.” he offers His broken body to us, his people who are broken and sinful and needing His very being to feed us and give us strength in our journey in this life. Francis is walking a fine line, pushing the envelope to help reform our Church. When the clergy get the message and start doing the same, the change will begin to happen.

  4. Maybe the example is what we need to follow. It will add to the dialogue at the upcoming Synod. A Pope who is not afraid to be a pastor and who knows the teaching yet models for us how to let it shape us into the mind and heart of Christ rather than a letter of the law mentality. Custom has been the hallmark of change in the Church for centuries. May these individual acts provide the kind of materials of which custom can be made for reflection in future regulation.

  5. While I’m for holy communion for the divorced and remarried, it is an interesting break in collegiality on part of the pope. Earlier he said that we should wait for the synod before any decisions are made.

    1. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #6:

      I think the Pope is it risk at being rolled on this attempted reform due to his mistakes, including adopting Cardinal Kaspers flawed reasoning and now making it clear he is trying to do pretend consultations.

      And that would be unfortunate, as this reform I think can be done while maintaining and improving our orthodoxy, and would save souls.

      NB. I think the orthodox reason for the reform is that we are being inconsistent, making remarriage a bigger deal than other sins including adultery without remarriage, all for the same of some civil paperwork.

      1. @Scott Smith – comment #12:
        Or, perhaps it’s a matter of mercy, and of purging an unforgiveable sin from the administration of a hidebound and confused Church. Even non-believers perceive the confusion when grave and damaging sins even go unaddressed. But divorces are allowed to fester decades after the fact, and long after fruitful marriages with children are allowed to take root. Church teaching on divorce blocks entry into Catholicism for many. This must end.

        Orthodoxy may well be the stumbling block here. Screw it. We petition for mercy at nearly every celebration of the Eucharist. It’s time we all got serious about it. Accepting it. Giving it. Celebrating it.

        Who cares what the pope said or didn’t say to the woman. We all have our own experiences of mercy to engage: receiving it and giving it to others. This is where the focus should be: on our own sins, our own petition for mercy, and our imitation of Christ who gives mercy.

        The issue of unforgiveable sin demands reform, and as you suggest, involves salvation. Salvation trumps any perception of human-fabricated orthodoxy. The ultimate orthodoxy is the mercy of Christ. Not institutional laws.

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #13:


        Abandoning truth saves no one. And worse, mercy without truth is empty, a lie which leads us away from God.

        We need to remember Orthodoxy does not prevent us from getting rid of practices which are, in my opinion at least, inconsistent and damaging to the salvation of souls. Indeed, Orthodoxy demands we get rid of these rules, as the salvation of souls can not be ignored if we really believe this stuff.

        However, it is lazy and unfaithful to do so in a way which ignores truth, and shocking when the desired result can be achieved fully in accordance with the teachings of our Lord.

      3. @Scott Smith – comment #14:
        Scott, what is the truth? Are there sins that are unforgiveable? My own mother was likely blocked from becoming Catholic in the late 60’s/early 70’s because of a three-month marriage long before she met my father. Her second marriage lasted fifty years–until his death.

        I’m afraid I can lay the blame of laziness and unfaithfulness at the feet of this so-called law, which seems to me to ignore truth, reality, and fruitfulness.

        The Lord, by the way, never barred sinners from Communion, not even an unrepentant Judas. At some point, perhaps we should set aside our outrage about others supposedly unworthy to approach the sacraments, and look to ourselves, and look to the quality of mercy.

        There are many boondoggles involved with current practice of remarried Catholics approaching the sacraments. Good discernment, and faithfulness demand we look at all of them. Not just the ones that spark a particular outrage in the elder siblings.

      4. @Todd Flowerday – comment #17:


        Now you are not even trying. Reread what I wrote – I am arguing the law needs to change.

        In terms of unforgiveable sins, there is really no such thing. There are only sins for which we do not repent and seek forgiveness.

        This is in fact why we should allow those committing adultery to approach for communion if they insist, even we if advise against it as it is to their own judgement, as the Church is a field hospital for sinners.

        People in the modern world are much more likely to receive the grace they need to repent if they remain within the visible Church, which in an age of frequent communion and private confession, requires they not be publically singled out over all other sinners as they law currently does.

  6. May God save us from such “reforms.” They are the sort of thing neither Pope John XXIII nor Pope John Paul II would have tolerated for a moment.

  7. Peter Kwasniewski : May God save us from such “reforms.” They are the sort of thing neither Pope John XXIII nor Pope John Paul II would have tolerated for a moment.

    You know this, how?

  8. Fr. Bergoglio told the woman what countless pastors of souls have said to people in similar circumstances who have asked for something to eat. We cannot bring ourselves to offer them a scorpion when they’ve asked for bread. We’re not supposed to be rearranging people so they can be fit for sacraments. Jesus allowed his body to be broken and his blood outpoured so that we could receive his mercy and love in bread and wine. I realize that his actions are annoying the hell out of the chief priests and Pharisees. God, as they understand him, didn’t let them know that if the pope is the vicar of Christ he might just want to make all things new. Perhaps they would like to stone the woman caught in adultery, but Francis just told her to take and eat. I think we should consider keeping our eyes fixed ad orientam. Maranatha!

  9. This way of governing the church is weird. It’s just a knife in the back of collegiality and subsidiarity, two values that ought to be more important in our estimation. I don’t think an honest person thinking with the Council can support imperial church-governance-on-a-whim, even when we like the outcome in a specific case. It’s about process.

  10. Todd: The unforgivable sin is the one you keep on doing and never repent. For instance, keeping a mistress or engaging in some other kind of adulterous relationship. As soon as you repent with a firm purpose of amending your conduct, the Lord’s mercy is there.

    Is that what you’re talking about?

  11. Let me see if I have this clear. Unmarried churchmen contend that the teaching of Jesus on divorce means that after one’s marriage has failed and is entirely irreconcilable any act of intercourse in a subsequent civil marriage constitutes adultery. Virtually no one treats people living in a second marriage as if they were adulterers.

    1. @Alan Johnson – comment #21:

      There is an important distinction between adultery and remarriage after divorce. The Church recognizes this. The Church also makes different, sometimes stricter distinctions for non-believers than it does for its own.

      Any well-informed Catholic knows the standard for mortal sin. Ignorance of this is not an excuse, be the person a prelate or a member of the internet commentariat.

      “As soon as you repent with a firm purpose of amending your conduct, the Lord’s mercy is there.”

      Strictly interpreted, this is pelagianism. A heresy. God’s mercy is a constant. It is the human action to accept or decline it, not earn it.

  12. Pope Francis is going to have to adopt the Messianic Secret approach henceforth to all his pastoral interventions:

    “TELL NO ONE.”

    I guess that was before Facebook. 🙂

    We can all recall that healing on the Sabbath was also controversial, because it was also thought to undermine the law.

    And the lesson for us is… ?

    Let’s look on the bright side. What’s interesting about this whole thing is that mercy is controversial once more! It’s no longer just a sweet thing that droppeth like the dew. It’s exercised in the teeth of opposition.

  13. If Pope Francis is changing the law of the Church it would be helpful to tell us clearly. If he is not changing the law of the Church it is confusing if he seems to set it aside.
    If the law is treated casually then law breakers cannot be held to account be they clergy who defy their bishop or employers who defraud their employees.
    Much is unclear in this story: did the Pope appreciate that he might be undermining the authority of the parish priest and bishop? Did he realise that the world would try to read into his advice about a possible change in Church law? I suspect not. My guess is that he is acting with the delicacy of the fictional Rev Harold (Stinker) Pinker in a china shop world of the modern media.
    Readers please remember that law, however badly administered, provides us with protection from anarchy or despotism. We are entitled to know what it is.

    1. @Peter Haydon – comment #24:
      Pope Francis has told the Church he expects bishops to man up in these situations. What he may have told a woman is not indicative of church “law.” But it is indicative of a merciful pastoral practice.

      When the law is badly formed and badly administered and mercy is lacking some have little protection.

      Elder siblings, lifelong faithful to the Church and its laws, know what is right. In the words of the evangelists, they have always known what is right. That makes for easy stuff: keep doing the right.

      As for remarried Catholics, they might now have some hope. And should take a demonstration of mercy with grave seriousness as they are welcomed back into an experience of grace. Those of us who have never thought to commit “adultery” should take up the banner of angels, and rejoice. That some have sinned is in no way a boost for our holiness. Rather our sanctity is identified when we adopt the attitude of mercy. Appealing to the law makes us amateur lawyers, not de facto saints.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #25:
        Thank you Todd.
        Surely if law is badly formed it should be changed? My point is that we need to know what it is.
        I suspect that law is frequently badly administered. Certainly those with much money can pay for better lawyers. Corrupt judges and incompetent administrators do not help. Anarchy is worse still.

      2. @Peter Haydon – comment #26:

        Pope Francis offers a different perspective in his encyclical:

        realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, eth- ical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom. 231

        He is not changing the law, he is engaging the reality. In doing that, the law may end up being changed. But for now, the reality of second marriages are more important than what has been worked out in the law.

        If there is a change, it is that we should be concerned with realities rather than law.

      3. @Jim McKay – comment #28:
        Jim gets this right. It was what Jesus addressed as we read in the Gospels, and his frustration with the elder siblings of his day. Those of us faithful to the household, and who consider ourselves virtuous, are being asked to look at things in a new way. We are not harmed by looking.

      4. @Jim McKay – comment #28
        Thank you for the reference to Evangelii Gaudium. Curiously it is listed as an Apostolic Exhortation rather than as an Encyclical.
        As you say a parish priest may be faced with all kinds of challenges. If he responds in a way that his bishop disapproves of then he can use the defence that his actions were in accordance with the teaching of the Church. If the bishop replies that canon law and formal Church teaching are to be set aside then the priest has no clear idea what he may or may not do. So the bishop can, at a whim, deprive the priest of his faculties and his living.The reality of being suspended may indeed seem of greater immediate concern than the idea of using Canon Law to challenge an unjust decision.
        Please note that I am making no comment at all about the correct way of dealing with people living in a second marriage.
        I merely make the point that we deserve certainty as to what rules will be applied both in our civil and church activities.

      5. @Peter Haydon – comment #32:

        Like the whirlwind that confronted Job, God confounds all our certainties. We have to be open to that reality, aware that our own ideas and arguments might be inadequate. One day we might meet a couple whose marriage is a sacrament, and not a mortal sin. If we go with the rules, and say it is a mortal sin, we fall short of our role as Christians.

        IOW we may deserve certainty, but faith makes it impossible to attain it. Faith takes out into uncertain territories while certainty leaves us trapped with in set boundaries. We may deserve certainty, but God gives us grace instead.

      6. @Jim McKay – comment #33:
        Indeed Jim
        As a sign of humility I think that we try to accept the teaching of the Church even if we find it hard to agree. I know that in 1944 a number of German Catholics wondered if murder of their national leader would be a justified breach of the commandment not to kill: the circumstances were extreme.
        I made no comment on what the pastoral approach of a priest should be to a person in a second marriage. It seems to me fair to him, and those in his care, that he knows what he is permitted to say and do and what is not permitted. He may feel justified in taking a different approach but that is his decision.
        My point is that it is unfair if his actions are subject to arbitrary censure and he has no defence of knowing the test that will be applied to him.
        Think how Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced out of his job for an action that was perfectly legal. His point of view was subsequently judged to be unacceptable: he was punished for an action that no rule forbade him from doing. That seems to me to be an injustice and not a work of grace.

  14. Some seem to be missing the difference between grave matter and grave or mortal sin. If I should be unable, in good conscience, to accuse myself of mortal sin, am I required nonetheless to seek penance and absolution. And suppose I do bring it up in confession, or in a presumably confidential conversation with a pope, and I am asked if I believe I am living in an objective state of sin, and I must respond NO, Father. Should I be scandalized if I am told to open myself to God’s merciful love and do what I believe I must? That gets misrepresented as Father told me I could go to communion. This is the risk involved in internal forum solutions. Perhaps the synods can address this more fully.

  15. I know that the topic here is how to meet the pastoral needs of the remarried, but ………..
    Do we judge equally harshly those who do not follow Jesus clear expectation (upon which our salvation would seem to hinge, if the gospel is to be believed) that we should visit prisoners, clothe the naked and feed the hungry? Do we ban from the sacraments those who fail to meet those standards until they succeed in meeting them?
    Or is it just sex that gets people so hot under the collar and judgemental?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *